The Golden Age of Hops and Beer: The Fine Art of Choosing a Hop

By: Robin Dohrn- Simpson

Choosing the right hops can be a complicated task. Some breweries choose hops based on past agreements – they have long-standing relationships with growers they feel confident will provide what they need, at the highest quality. Some search out their hops based on geography, based on knowledge of which plant grows better in Washington than in Oregon or Idaho. Some experiment with hops growers who are creating new varieties and bringing them to market. Others just want a Citra, or an Alpha, or a Cascade, and make a spot purchase. Whichever path they choose, what truly matters is the quality of the hop and the right varietal for the beer.

Purchasing Based on Terroir

  Thomas Bleigh, Innovation Brewmaster at Craft Brew Alliance’s Ph Experiment in Oregon, chooses his hops based on the terroir.

  “While I don’t have any empirical evidence to support this, I, historically, have had a preference for Oregon-grown vs. Washington-grown Cascade hops. Much of it was the most likely narrative for the beer that we produced, but we did run trials on Cascade in our flagship single-hop Cascade Ale, and we found a preference in one supplier,” Bleigh said. “Much of this would have been tied to a qualitative raw source, but we also believed that processing played a role in the character of the hop.”

  Despite Bleigh’s preference for Oregon-grown, the CBA doesn’t limit themselves to hops from one state over another, instead, focusing on locally sourced ingredients. This is undoubtedly the case at their Redhook brewpub in Seattle.

  “Currently, our Redhook BrewLab is working on a series called Washington Native that focuses on Washington sourced malts and salmon-safe sourced Washington hops,” said Bleigh. “That project is an interesting example of trying to tease our nuance based on regional distinction. One of the challenges is that while Pacific Northwest breweries are hyper-aware and engaged in local sourcing, we are also mindful that these hops service the majority of domestic craft.”

  Hop varietals, just like any plant, thrive in some regions over others. At the same time, varietals that thrive in any environment can develop characteristics based on the soil and weather of the area where they grow. Terroir is often spoken of regarding winegrapes but can also be applied to other crops, particularly those involved in the creation of alcoholic beverages.

  “Yakima, given its dry climate, is a much better growing region for higher alpha hop varieties and Nuevo IPA hop varieties. These proprietary hops (such as Citra, Mosaic, Azacca) all fare better in Washington than they do in Oregon. Idaho presents an interesting domestic terroir character, and they have now surpassed Oregon for hops produced and are becoming more of a geographic force in the industry,” Bleigh said.

  Larry Sidor, Co-Founder, Master Brewer and CEO at Crux Fermentation Project in Bend Oregon, knows hops and appreciates why different regions and growers yield a range of characteristics.

  “Terroir, climate conditions during kilning, as well as processing methods post field harvest make all the difference. When hops are dried in Oregon the ambient temperatures are lower than Washington, but the humidity is higher, yielding significant differences. Methods of preserving the hops differ quite widely and can contribute different nuances. An example is “farmer bales” that are dried, packed loosely, and then stored in barns. Books can and have been written about all the differences. The resulting beer is also different,” Sidor said.

  Sidor does have a preference, however. “Being a native Oregonian, my belief and preference is that Willamette Valley grown hops are the best in the world. I may be a bit biased, I’ve brewed with hops from every major hop growing region in the world, so that should count for something,”

  Christian DeBenedetti of Wolves and People Brewery in Newberg, Oregon, feels that the amount of sensory and flavor research and description in the industry is at an all-time high. His brewery wants growers with proven track records and a full grasp on their fields and crops.

  “Hops are almost like wine varietals at this point. There are so many interesting old and new varieties being cultivated with real care, and we definitely look to favored growers who can communicate accurately about their hops and lots. They vary by year and even by the lot, because of variations in soil and site. So we’re looking for a combination of characteristics we can bring forward in a well-made beer,” DeBenedetti said. “Soil chemistry and farming techniques both affect hop flavor. Take Cascade, for example, a classic aroma hop. In Oregon and Washington, it tends to grapefruit and pine. In New Zealand, which is free of the sort of pests that plague other growing regions, it’s often more melon-like. This is due to the soil it’s grown in. This a perfect reflection of terroir in beer.”

Which Comes First, the Hops or the Brew?

  Brewers vary in their approach to creating a beer recipe. Sometimes, an idea for a new brew will come to them, and they will search out the ingredients to make it. Other times, it’s the ingredients themselves that inspire a recipe.

  At Crux Fermentation Project, Sidor prefers experimenting with hops and letting them do the talking. “I don’t brew a beer until I’ve acquired the materials to brew it,” he said. “Once they are acquired, I then look for the best way to utilize them in a formulation. Crux tends to bring in a dozen or so new hops every year with the intent of experimenting with them using this approach. I don’t have an idea about a brew when I purchase a hop. I typically brew a single-hop brew to get a feel for the hop. The result is usually a very one-dimensional beer that isn’t very interesting. This doesn’t mean the hop is bad; it means that other hops are needed in the brew to make it shine.

  A good example of this is the Strata hop. By itself, it is very one dimensional, when in combination with other hops, it’s a rock star. One hop that seems to shine all by itself is the Sabro hop. Have only brewed one brew so far, but as a single hop brew, the Sabro delivered a very layered and interesting beer. In short, you need to let the hop tell you what beers it’s going to shine in.”

  Wolves and People Brewery has built beers around individual hops. “There are new aroma varieties that play up fruity, tropical aromas like passionfruit, lychee, coconut and mango. We want those traits to be front and center, so we build a recipe almost like a stage to pop those bright, high-tone aromas to the fore. Sometimes we’re doing the complete opposite. We want a beer that has spice character, some old-world bitterness and aroma, then we go looking for those varieties and use what’s freshest,” DeBenedetti said.

Experimental Hops

  Joe Catron, “Hoperations” Manager at Yakima Chief Ranches, feels right now is the Golden Age of hops and beer. Three hop farming families created Yakima Chief with the sole purpose of creating new world-class hops varieties and bringing them to market. The process of creating a new hop takes up to a decade and can cost upwards of a million dollars from cross-pollination, to market research, to placement in the marketplace. The ranch releases one new hop approximately every year.

  “We make several crosses each year and generally result in 30-50,000 seedlings in any given year,” Catron told Beverage Master Magazine. “In my seven years working here we have released five varieties: four flavoring and aroma for the American scene and one super alpha hop for bittering for the big macro brewers.”

  Yakima Chief has experienced immense growth over the years. When Catron started in 2013, there were three owner-growers and 900 acres planted. As of 2019, there are now 45 farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, with 15,000 acres managed.

  The ranch applies a “fail fast” mentality. They run a hop through the gamut, and if it doesn’t check off all the boxes, it goes to the scrap heap. However, they did have a quasi-flop that eventually became a success.

  “The Simco hop was released 20 years ago as a dual purpose hop alpha and aroma. We couldn’t give it away. Some said it was too pungent, punchy and dank. We were going to tear down the bines, but Russian River Brewing found it and liked it, and it became a champion in the beer called Pliny the Elder. Vinny, the head brewer is a cult hero amongst brewers. He helped to save the variety, and now there are 3,000 acres of this hop planted. It was definitely before it’s time and needed a new audience,” Catron said.

  Crux Fermentation’s Sidor has seen experimentation change the hops market throughout his career, due to the increase in craft brewing and the demand for the next big thing.

  “When I started brewing, only Cluster and Fuggle were available. You could bring in hops from Europe, but most were at a state of oxidation higher than acceptable,” he said. “My concern now is, can the hop breeder keep up with the customer demand for ‘what’s new?’ Remember that Cascade was revolutionary in the 1970s, Citra 40 years later, Galaxy 5 years after that. The thing that has accelerated hop breeding is the customer demand, the technical tools now available to the hop researcher, and the money available to do the research. My only concern is that not enough money is being spent on breeding public varieties by the USDA.” 

  Craft Brew Alliance’s pH Experiment specializes in trying new things, and Bleigh enjoys testing hop varieties. “We are heavily invested in trialing new hop varieties and working with the Hop Research Council to explore new varietals and to support public breeding of hops. Our initial explorations have shaped our early pioneering interest in hops like Citra and Galaxy, which have very specific tropical hop characters that are signature hops in some of our brands,” he said.

  Hops play an essential role in the craft beer industry, helping create distinct brews with complimentary varietal combinations and terroir. With a high demand for more hops and hops growers, and places like Yakima Chief Ranch creating new cross breeds nearly every year, the U.S. hops industry can only continue to bloom.

“American hops is the world leader right now. It’s a special time to be alive,” Catron said.

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